Northern Ireland’s brutal era of sectarian conflict did not end with the peace agreement signed in 1998, Flynn Berry reminds us in NORTHERN SPY (Viking, 278 pp., $26), a chilling, gorgeously written tale of a modern community poisoned by ancient grievances. Life goes on in the province — people work, raise children, see friends — but everyone is required to take a side: Protestant or Catholic? United Kingdom, or United Ireland?
Tessa Daly, a BBC radio producer, has just returned to work from maternity leave when she glances at the television and sees that her life is about to fall apart. There on the screen is her beloved sister Marian, her face obscured by a black ski mask, pictured at a gas station that’s in the process of being robbed by armed intruders. The Irish Republican Army claims responsibility. Is Marian a terrorist?
“It can come as a shock,” a detective tells Tessa, “to learn that someone you love has joined.”
Berry is a beautiful writer with a sophisticated, nuanced understanding of this most complicated of places, where the Dalys and their friends live in fear of the I.R.A. “They tell us when to be scared, when to be quiet,” Tessa says.
Desperate to help her sister and protect her baby son, Tessa is dragged further and further into a shadowy, dangerous world of weapons caches, undercover operatives, police informants and bugging operations. This is a perilous place of clashing allegiances in which the friendliest person can turn out to be the most committed of terrorists. Berry keeps the tension almost unbearably high throughout, even as the plot sags a bit at the end.
At the heart of the story is Tessa’s fierce relationship with Marian, almost a metaphor for Northern Ireland itself. “Our last argument, about a film that she liked and I hated, went on for so long that near the end I thought we were about to switch sides and argue the other’s point,” Tessa says.